By Paul Waugh
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Workers were facing job losses, parents and children facing chaos over school closures and exams, the coronavirus death toll had risen to 144. But in Downing Street today, Boris Johnson made plain he really didn’t think there was any need for him to hang around. A dollop of optimism, a bit of an announcement, as little waffle from the boffins as possible. In, out, job done.
The PM opened his latest No.10 Q&A with the warning that “I don’t propose to spend a very long time at this particular one since we’ve had about four or five of these already in the last few days.” Perhaps most telling of all, he then added: “I don’t want to weary you with these occasions.” It was pitched as a joke, but sounded very much like he was the one tired of scrutiny. Pesky things, questions.
Now remember the whole point of these events is for the government to get across crucial public health messages on matters of life and death. Making an announcement is one thing, but explaining it in detail, and answering questions that the public want answered, are what make the messages credible and effective. Communications are not an optional extra, they are central to this entire ‘wartime’ effort.
As it happens, the PM started off well, delivering concise messages about staying at home, washing hands and saying away from pubs and restaurants. He was suitably grateful to all those who had so far heeded government advice, acknowledging it involved huge disruption to their daily lives.
In his effort to offer some reassurance that the disruption would not be endless, Johnson also came up with that first ever estimate of a timeline. He wanted to say something “about how I see the timescale of this campaign”. “I do think, looking at it all, that we can turn the tide within the next 12 weeks and I’m absolutely confident that we can send coronavirus packing in this country.”
The jocular tone of sending a deadly virus ‘packing’ (just imagine if he’d used that phrase about AIDS in the 1980s?) was one thing. But what immediately rang alarm bells was that repeated use of the word ‘I’. Was the PM suddenly qualified to make this huge assessment on his own? Why weren’t the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser the ones to make such a major announcement?
Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, having been deferred to in previous press conferences, were suddenly bit players. They didn’t even get the chance to expand on the timeline assessment before Johnson, with that flash of impatience at the whole event, then invited questions.
And within minutes the 12-week timeframe seemed to melt before our very eyes. When pressed (pesky questions again) on what exactly he meant, he replied: “Now I cannot stand here and tell you that by the end of June that we will be on the downward slope.” Was the tide merely stopping for a bit in 12 weeks’ time, before turning?
On either side of him, the two scientists looked nonplussed. Vallance preferred to talk about trials starting on a new vaccine in April. “These are things which altogether start to tell us that we’ve moved from a phase of it’s growing and we need to take these measures to stop it growing, to ones where we’re saying put a lid on it and begin to start looking at what we do beyond that in order to get into the right position.” It felt like a mass of words used to express extraordinary caution.
Of course, it’s understandable that the PM wanted to offer more certainty to a worried public. And his allies will argue that he can’t win, having been criticised for not telling people how long they should practice social distancing. But in so swiftly casting doubt on his own timeframe (and later not even mentioning it in his tweets), in failing to let the scientists deliver the news, he managed to leave many people more confused than before.
Similarly, his claim that testing would be ramped up to 250,000 tests every day, seemed like the need to have a Big Figure to brandish. That stat of a quarter of a million tests done every day (yes, it’s worth repeating) turned out to include not just 25,000 normal coronavirus tests but huge numbers of antibodies tests too. It would indeed be a gamechanger to have a simple blood test for those who have had the virus but weren’t aware of it. But again, such claims have to be credible.
In fact, there was so little detail in the entire press conference (nothing on definitions of ‘critical workers’, nothing on wages direct support) that it felt like Johnson had come up with the 12-week figure to fill airtime, pending details of the real substance on Friday. He’s committed to these damned daily events and needed to say something, anything while the policy wonks beavered away in the Treasury and Department of Health.
The shame was that there were interesting things to say about the science. Yet as Donald Trump showed in his own briefing today, letting politicians freelance on that science is a dangerous thing. Trump declared at one point that the US FDA watchdog had approved an over-the-counter anti-malarial drug as a treatment for coronavirus. Within minutes, the FDA denied it. As it happens, I’m told Trump wanted to go further to claim the drug was a ‘cure’ for the disease, but was talked out of it.
For the first few weeks of this crisis, Johnson has not taken the Trump route. However today he seemed to have a child-like attention span. And like Trump, he’s sounding more acutely aware of the political dangers of getting this all wrong.
Gordon Brown this morning called for urgent action (as did Tory MPs) on wage subsidies. In a clear riposte, Johnson tried to claim his response to coronavirus would be better than Brown’s in the 2008 financial crisis, when the banks were bailed out but the public left adrift. “This time will be different,” he said. “We’re going to really make sure to look after the people who suffer economic consequences of what we’re asking them, we’re going to look after the people first.”
The PM’s allies will say that the comprehensive scale of this crisis makes 2008 look like a picnic and that for all the imperfect responses, the state is being mobilised effectively. Yet his critics will say that he’s being shown up as fundamentally unserious.
The most stupid question of the press conference came not from a journalist but from Johnson himself. Referring to the No.10 events, he asked “Do you feel they are useful?” To which the answer is: yes, as long as you treat them seriously. Yes, he has a country to run and not just press conferences to give. But the comms are a key weapon in the fight against this disease.
With the death rate set to soar in the UK, and with our medical staff putting themselves in mortal danger every day, now seems exactly the wrong time for the PM to lapse back into his ‘call-and-response/put a smile on their faces’ approach to politics. But ultimately he’ll be judged not on what he says, but what he does. For all our sakes, we should hope he just isn’t getting bored.
Quote Of The Day
“Many of us will need to find new ways of staying in touch with each other and making sure that loved ones are safe. I am certain we are up to that challenge.”
Her Majesty The Queen.
Thursday Cheat Sheet
No. 10 said there was ‘zero prospect’ of a ‘London lockdown’ restricting travel in and out of the capital. However some forced closures of pubs and restaurants seems likely.
The number of deaths from coronavirus rose to 144 as a further 29 patients died in England. The youngest was 47 and had underlying health conditions. The number of deaths in Italy exceeded those in China.
The new emergency powers bill for coronavirus was published. It included giving local and national authorities the power to force others to supply information about their capacity to deal with “transportation, storage or disposal of dead bodies”.
Lords Speaker Lord Fowler, aged 82, told peers he would be “withdrawing from the House for the time being”.
The Church of England restricted weddings to five people to limit social contact.
The Bank of England cut interest rates to just 0.1%, a week after rates were cut to 0.25%.
EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier tested positive for coronavirus.
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